Palmasola Prison, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, is a modern-day Dante's Inferno. But instead of the Roman poet Virgil guiding visitors through this modern-day underworld, my passage is shepherded by a good man named Jacob.
When one thinks "Bolivian Prison," one might think 'barbarian.' But really, that word is so inadequate in this case.
Palmasola itself is a series of concentric rings of walls and barbed wire. In the center ring is a squalid slum where the prisoners--and their children--live, and into which guards venture only a few times a day when all of the prisoners stand for roll call. (Unless, of course, you are one of the hundreds who have enough money to bribe your way out of appearing for roll call.) In actual fact, the prison is completely run by a mafia of powerful prisoners. They charge the others for their cells, taxes on "imported" items and privileges, and extortion money. Those who cannot afford to pay for a cell sleep in the gutter. Food is a gulag-style gruel served once a day for those who lack the dinero to have their food brought in. This is my third day with Jacob, an American incarcerated in the hell that is Palmasola, for a crime he did not commit. I would call it purgatory, but the concept of purgatory implies a temporary stay. There is no such promise at Palmasola.
There are many Americans in foreign jails who have earned their way there. Jacob is not one of them. And few human beings, even those guilty of crimes, have "earned" Palmasola. Open sewers run through the streets (yes, streets), and the prison garbage dump shares a plot of land with the prison kitchen. Cocaine sales, prostitution and footbol games are all equally sanctioned and 'above board.' They also take place within 20 yards of each other. I saw all three of these recreational activities occur just today inside the prison. It occurred to me while strolling past the cocaine "store" yesterday with Jacob, that with cocaine in the prison selling at approximately 1/100 of the price of cocaine on the outside, users should just find a friend to start visiting. Prostitution is even more convenient. Prisoners at the female prison within the same walls pay 10 Bolivianos ($1.50) for entry into the men's side, and charge 30 Bolivianos ($4.37) for each "trick." Or you can pay more for any of the local professionals who come in from town. This is not only endorsed, but facilitated by the authorities who rule the prison. And who are those authorities? The prisoners with the most power, of course. And power is determined by money and/or violence.
That the prison is run by prisoners is not a figure of speech implicitly condemning an inefficient or corrupt system; it is a fact, of which the Bolivian government is proud. They have intentionally and officially ceded control of the interior of the prison to the prisoners. All the Bolivian guards do is essentially form a blockade around Palmasola so that no one escapes and only those things that the guards are paid to allow in are imported. Oh, and they drag out the bodies of the prisoners who are killed, usually on the average of on a month; and usually at the hands of the security prisoners.
Members of the Disciplina Interna ("Internal Discipline," an appropriately chilling name) patrol the prison and enforce regulations, social convention and the power of the ruling prisoners. To be a member of the Interna Disciplina, you must of course be a prisoner and you must be sentenced to 30 years or more, which ensures that the very people who enforce "order" in the prison are those that committed the most heinous crimes. The huge person I paid to protect me, "Moso," is at least notionally one of the least violent ones; he only killed one woman. In reality, the Disciplina Interna are uniformed thugs who demand protection money from prisoners and visitors alike. Al Capone would be proud.
In the middle of this hell is Jacob Ostreicher, a grandfather from Brooklyn who made the mistake of trying to start a rice farm in Bolivia. Actually, the mistake was not so much starting the farm, the mistake was being successful. When you are successful in Bolivia, you have money. If you have money, you might not support the ruling socialist party. If you don't support the ruling socialist party, you might give your money to a party in opposition to the people in charge. Then you are a threat to Evo Morales, the megalomaniac in charge of Bolivia. When you are a threat to Evo, you go to Palmasola.
The prison is full of thieves and people more corrupt than you have likely experienced. And now I'm speaking of course, of the uniformed Bolivian guards who grant visitors access to the village of the damned. I have spent three days in this "prison" and each day, I have been robbed by guards who look me in the eye with a shameless "What are you going to do about it?" smirk as they took my money. Using a note written in Spanish that says that I do not speak their language (which I actually do), allowed me to hear the guards ridicule me, Americans and our culture. Entering the prison, visitors are branded with permanent ink stamps and 'Sharpie'-applied numbers. When I entered the first day, the guard told the line of Bolivians (in Spanish), "Instead of black ink, I'll use green for the gringo." Hilarity ensued.
Every night, I leave the prison promptly at 6:30 p.m. (the penalty for being late is spending the night in prison), suffering from a type of "survivor's guilt" . My guilt is from knowing that Jacob cannot leave, and that he is no more guilty of a crime than am I.
Tomorrow, I go back. But every day as I leave, I wonder why the United States has a State Department. And I wonder where they are--and if they suffer from survivor's guilt.